Scientific fraud, false positives and the hunt for answers

May 01 2013 Published by under Uncategorized

Go read this bit of news published in Nature recently (especially the comments). The quick recap is that a social psychologist, Ap Dijksterhuis has an effect, published over a decade ago, that others have yet to replicate. Researcher’s are skeptical, some replication attempts have failed, he stands by the effect. There's been a lot of back and forth.

The article leaves me feeling a little uneasy. Not just the looming issue of unreplicability, but how we scientists are going to deal with it.

“[Dijksterhuis] adds that social psychology needs to get more rigorous, but that the rigour should be applied to future, not historical, experiments.”

He seems to be doing his best Mark McGwire impression: I’m not here to talk about the past (McGwire was a baseball player accused of cheating whose response was basically to suggest we all forget it and move on).

The article ends with this stinger, a quote from an email sent by one of the skeptics of the effect.

“refusal to engage in a legitimate scientific conversation … invites the interpretation that the believers are afraid of the outcome”

I don’t want to give the impression that I don't think fraud and false positives are issues.  This article in Nature, which is whether you like it or not, a flagship journal of science research. Maybe I'm reading between the lines too much here but the article seems to end with:

They’re not sayin’, they’re just sayin’.

Not to long ago baseball was in a similar situation regarding cheating with steroids.  There is clearly some bad behavior going on. We're not totally sure what to do. Ideas range from testing everyone all the time to doing nothing. Baseball went through a phase where everyone was suspect if there performance was a bit too ... unexpected. Perhaps that is where we are now?

6 responses so far

  • Beck says:

    The beauty of this kind of "science" (and the difference between baseball and science perhaps) is that in this kind of "science" you can always say things like:

    "I don't know why it did not replicate over there, maybe it was the day of the week that was different. It could be so many things !?!" (but we have never really thought about investigating these things ourselves)

    or after 8 years of experimenting:

    "We now have found that this effect basically only happens under tightly controlled lab conditions" (which implies that it is totally useless concerning any real world practical effect)

    or how's this one:

    "How dare you critically examine our findings. I am a professor, what I say goes dammit".

    or

    "You just have to trust us scientists, why don't you believe these higly important results. I am a professor, so what I say goes so you just got to believe me and listen to me when I speak !!"

    There is no doping-blood test like in baseball. In pharmaceutical science, scientists have to pre-register their studies if I am not mistaken. That would be the closest thing perhaps to sort of a "doping test" for scientists.

    I honestly feel sorry for these scientists working in this field. Apparently they work in a field where (some?) grown men and women:

    1) act like children in simple discussions about research, but can't call eachother out on that because that would somehow not be a "proper" way of talking to eachother (It's really ridiculous. Try and read the comments and see how things are stated. It seems to me that because it is somehow not "proper" to just say things like they are, sentences and words are used which altogether results in a "discussion" which reads like a satirical comic. It's really quite funny, and has little to do with a scientific discussion i.m.o. I can't wait for the day to read a similar "scientific discussion" about a scientist who claims to have found a living yellow dragon and did some tests on it and subsequelty wrote a nice article about it. It would be highly amusing to read a "proper" scientific discussion about that)

    2) actually believe they have been/ are doing science optimally and have to come up with all this stuff in the first place,

    3) have to worry about how to get the next "high-impact"-journal publication and funding to keep a job,

    4) have to teach students about all this stuff and keep a straight face, and

    5) could at one point in their lives come to the conclusion that all the research they have ever done, and all their publications, and maybe even their entire "career", has been performed so poorly (from a scientific standpoint) that it may very well all have been completely useless...That's why I feel sorry for these scientists. I hope that these scientists are not at the end of their career, so that there is still time left for them to now do things correctly should they still want to try and make a useful scientific contribution.

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